by Eric Meadows,
Dr Eric Meadows is the Regional Director for Australia at Arcadia University, Philadelphia, and a Visiting Fellow at Deakin University
More Info >>

The consequences of Australia’s restrictive immigration policy, the so-called ‘White Australia’ policy, in place until the mid-1960s, after which it was progressively dismantled, are still hard to shake. The legacy of this profoundly misguided policy bedevils Australia’s image, in Asia in particular, to this day. The sharpness of the Indian media reporting on the recent attacks on Indian students in Australia was in part caused by a prevailing belief that despite the rhetoric Australia remains racist. Every ten years or so Australia seems to throw up a story of racism which attracts publicity in Asia. Whether it was Geoffrey Blainey’s 1984 speech arguing against a disproportionally high level of Asian immigration to Australia, or Pauline Hanson’s 1996 maiden speech in parliament, or the Cronulla riot in 2005, all were reported widely in Asia.

It is surprising that India was one of the first countries in Asia that Australia opened formal diplomatic relations with – in 1944, three years before India’s independence.  Australia was responding to pressure from Britain’s Secretary of State for India, Leo Amery, in doing so hoping to model what diplomatic relations among Dominions might look like once India had gained independence.

There were high hopes on both sides for the relationship. A defence alliance even was mooted in 1944. Australia was a western-aligned nation in the early Cold War and India was ‘non-aligned’, but their governments were in broad sympathy on many of the major issues of the day. Both countries worked together to assist Indonesia achieve independence. Jawaharlal Nehru and Ben Chifley had sympathy with nationalist movements in Asia and did not assume that a desire for freedom from colonial domination was inspired by revolutionary communism exported from Moscow.

Yet, by the mid 1950s Paul Hasluck could describe Australia’s relations with India as worse than those with any other country including Russia. The Menzies Government from 1949 worked hard to develop sound working relations with other Asian nations. Why did it apparently fail with India? There were many reasons for this. Australia under the Liberal/Country Party Government took a different view of the threat from international communism and the nature of the decolonisation in South East Asia than had Labor under Chifley. Australia became formally aligned in a series of treaties with other western powers – ANZUS in particular. India doubted that Australia had a genuinely independent view of the world: its views became irrelevant. It saw Australia as a client state, a mouth piece of the United States. Moreover, it seemed to support apartheid in South Africa. Menzies was very reluctant to support action against South Africa in the Commonwealth. This was an issue of central concern to India given Gandhi’s first non-violent campaign against discrimination which took place in Natal. Menzies’ intervention in the Suez crisis appalled Nehru and had it not been for Canada’s influence India might well have left the Commonwealth at this point.

Famously, Nehru and Menzies had a combative relationship. Nehru thought of Menzies’ views as fit for a Victorian museum. Menzies bored Nehru on visits to New Delhi with cricket stories. He was bested by Nehru once at the United Nations by a particularly sharp attack on his views. Menzies wrote in private of how the speech showed the primitive in Nehru.

Underlying India’s wariness lay a profound unease with Australia’s ‘White Australia’ policy. Although the Indian Government never made a public statement condemning the policy it was a subject of constant press comment in India over the years. It was the one thing even well-informed Indians knew about Australia – other than our prowess at cricket, of course! Successive Indian high commissioners in Canberra had reported on the administration of the policy and one occasion made some public comments calling for its replacement by a quota for Indian migration, a policy Canada already had introduced. Australian high commissioners in New Delhi reported on the damage to Australia by the policy and, from as early as 1946, similarly called for change. It had no impact.

Australia continued to send some of its best diplomatic representatives to New Delhi; its external affairs minister, Richard Casey, had been pre-independence governor of Bengal. The Liberal/Country Party Government should have been well informed about Indian policy; Casey was anxious to improve the relationship. The reporting from the high commission in New Delhi was consistently excellent and showed a broad understanding of India’s concerns. Yet none of this produced a policy towards India that was more flexible. Much of the standoff, however, is simply explained: India was not interested in Australia as such and nor was it interested in the area of Australia’s greatest and growing strategic concern, South East Asia. Nehru used non-alignment to broker for India considerable influence in the newly colonised nations; this was of little interest to Australia. It was hard to trade with India. Its tariff barriers and centrally planned economy, the ‘permit raj’, provided little scope for Australian exports of either services or raw materials.

There was a brief flurry of warmth during the Whitlam Government and after the formal abolition of the restricted immigration policy, but the relationship soon cooled. Over the next twenty years there were several moments when it appeared that each country might have discovered substantial interests in the other. The relationship only began to change in character when India realised it had become isolated by its lack of interest in South East Asia. The adoption of India’s ‘Look East’ policy in 1991 meant that both countries had a mutual interest in the region. Australia’s sharp response to India’s nuclear test in 1998 was a major setback for the relationship. Indeed, Australia’s apparent inability to adopt a more flexible policy over India’s unwillingness to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and to understand the reasoning behind India’s nuclear policy remains a major stumbling block in the relationship genuinely becoming ‘strategic’ as both prime ministers announced in November 2009. Both countries have an interest in managing a relationship with China. China is the focus of India’s nuclear policy; after all India was invaded by China in 1962; its border dispute remains unresolved.

Still, with substantial migration flows and a large student population there now is an underpinning to the relationship that neither country can ignore. One benefit of the appalling attacks on Indian citizens in the last year is that never have more Australian leaders visited India and sought ways to strengthen the relationship. There is now a substantial architecture to this relationship. Both countries have defined mutual interests in the other. Australia and India have moved beyond a stop-start relationship.

Citation: Eric Meadows, Australia’s Relations with India: Some of the History. Australian Policy and History. April 2010.


Print a pdf of this articleDownload a PDF of this paper.